Thursday, February 08, 2001

Smith's retirement could benefit Dillon

Viking join market for free-agent back

The Associated Press

        Robert Smith's surprising retirement makes Corey Dillon of the Bengals the best running back available in free agency and presumably will increase the bidding war for him.

        Smith's agent confirmed Wednesday that the 28-year-old running back is retiring after eight seasons with Minnesota.

        He is leaving the NFL at the top of his game, much like a 31-year-old Barry Sanders before the 1999 season, and at the height of his earning power as an unrestricted free agent.

        Smith was expected to sign a contract that would have exceeded his last five-year, $25 million deal.

        The Vikings could use the money they had planned to spend on Smith on another top free-agent back such as Dillon or the 49ers' Charlie Garner. The Bengals have said they will match any offer to Dillon.

        Smith, who announced his decision in a brief statement Tuesday to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, let his reasons for leaving remain a mystery. In the statement, Smith thanked his family, friends, fans and the Vikings organization.

        “I also wanted to thank my teammates and coaches for believing in me throughout my career,” said Smith, who played high school football in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid and later at Ohio State.

        The retirement leaves a large hole in the Vikings' offense.

        “Robert's decision to retire, as everyone knows, comes off his best season ever as a running back for the Minnesota Vikings. He leaves the game on top and is looking forward to his next challenge,” Vikings coach Dennis Green said in a statement.

        Smith's agent, Neil Cornrich, dismissed the idea that the often-injured back, who recently underwent a third knee operation, was tired of the pounding.

        “He could easily play five more years without jeopardizing his health,” Cornrich said.

        His next direction is uncertain, although Smith has said he might consider a career as a medical researcher. He pursued a history degree with a strong emphasis in science at Ohio State.

        Smith, the Vikings' first-round pick in 1993, led the NFC in rushing last season with 1,521 yards in his first complete 16-game season.
        Smith was deeply disappointed, however, by the Vikings' 41-0 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game and by the final two months of his season, in which he rushed for only 248 yards in five games.

        He was selected to the Pro Bowl but did not play because of knee surgery.

        The Vikings had made re-signing Smith a top priority, though they are expected to have to cut about $20 million to meet the 2001 salary cap limit.

        Smith's backup, Moe Williams, rushed for only 67 yards last season.


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